A Travellerspoint blog

Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

days 70-73

sunny 42 °C

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Mumbai is seen by many travellers in India as little more than a rite of passage, somewhere to get in to and out of as quickly as possible. Its true that its hugely over-crowded (more than 17 million people live in the greater Mumbai area), the hotels are expensive, the heat can be oppressive, the smells can be offensive and the odd shape of the city (which is actually an Island) makes transport around it quite difficult, but to write it off as merely a hub would be to miss out on the personality of a city that has several charms of its own to offer.

By the time we arrived in Mumbai we had 3 nights left until our flight, and decided to concentrate our time on the South end of the city. We were staying in the 'Fort' area near to the spectacular Chhatrapati Shivaji train station; a victorian era building that dominates the sky line and is the hub from which a quite staggeringly propostrous 0.9 million people per day pass through. The hotel was towards the grubby end of 'acceptable', but at 20 quid a night it was much cheaper than most of its competition and crucially had a room available – something that many of its competitors did not.

On our first morning we had a few things to post back to England so made our way to the general post office – another victoria-era building which stands very close to the train station and is only marginally less architecturally impressive. As we had a couple of semi-fragile items to post back, we tried to source a box for protection, however the parcel wrapping service (a bloke, a chair, a table, some cloth and a sewing kit) had other ideas – he rolled our items up as tightly as he could into a rugby ball shape, wrapped it in some cloth and set about sewing the whole thing together. Quite what either Royal Mail or my mother will make of it when they see it is anybody's guess, but if the silk painting, postcards and paper mache turtle ornament (yep) all arrive back in one piece then i'll be shocked, surprised and delighted in equal measure.

From the train station/post office area it is a 15 minute walk to the 'Kala Ghoda' area which houses many of the best art galleries in the city and has designated 'pavement galleries' which young and up and coming artists use to showcase their talents to passers by. As well as a smattering of charcoal portrait artists, there were plenty of really interesting mini-exhibitions that warrant fitting into even the tightest tourist itineraries.

A further 15 minutes walk South from Kala Ghoda lies Mumbai's best known tourist attraction – Colaba. From the ageing art-deco cinema at the top of the causeway to the swanky designer shops to the hip cafes to the 5 star hotels to India gate – its an area that oozes character and really warrants a full day to look around and get to grips with. Having read the fantastic book 'Shantaram' a year or so ago, a trip to Leopolds Cafe in Colaba was a must. After the terrorist attack there in 2008 there is a heavy security presence, but that hasn't stopped people going and it was nearly full at 3 in the afternoon when we went. The food was vastly over-priced and not that great, but there was a good mix of people in there, a chilled atmosphere and the big managers chair still exists!

To try and see as much as we could, we booked a 3 hour taxi tour to take us around some of the sights of South Mumbai. Getting shipped from landmark to landmark is not an ideal way of getting to know any city, but with limited time it has its advantages. The tour took in one of Mumbai's slums, which are as intriguing as they are chaotic. Its true that the standard of living is low and disease is rife, but to think of slum-dwellers as tramps with no entrepreneurial spirit or work ethic would be way wide of the mark – most of them are working from dusk till dawn and bring in income that allows them to live without begging. The tour then took in a 'Dhoby Ghat' – a huge outdoor laundrette, harbour road – lined by the sky-scrapers of India's most industrious city and home to chowpatty beach, and then Malabar hill – home to the city's rich and also accommodating the impressive 'hanging gardens' park. Within the park is the infamous 'towers of silence' where deceased persons of the 'Parsi' religion are brought to be covered in oil and left on the roof for the vultures to come and take them to heaven....! and overlooking the park is the residence owned by Anil Ambani which is either wildly eccentric or just plain grotesque depending on your view point. To finish off the tour the driver took us to the small fishing village where the 2008 terrorists landed on a hijacked speedboat where there was nothing particularly interesting to see, except when we were there a 10ft whale shark (I think – any marine boffins may want to correct me) had become beached and had attracted a pretty large gathering to see it.

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For our final night in India we decided to move to a hotel near to the aiport, and to 'splash out' (a tenner) on a room with air conditioning. It felt quite apt that the air-conditioning unit was broken and not a small bit ironic that the reason it was broken was not that it would not work, but that it was set too cold, couldn't be turned up and the fan blew at top speed right into our faces. We hid under the covers and tried to sleep but it was no good so we turned the AC off and slept in intense heat until 4am when somebody started making omelettes in the kitchen that was directly behind our paper-thin wall. It was almost as if the country where contrast, contradiction and outrageousness is a daily way of life was saying goodbye with a cheeky wink.

And so that is just about that as far as India is concerned. Two and a half months of the most interesting, ridiculous, exhilarating, educational, heart-warming, heart-breaking and at times emotionally testing months were at an end. Its impossible to do this incredible country justice with mere words; you need to smell it, feel it, embrace it, immerse yourself in it, feel part of it and you need to give it your all. Nowhere I've been is it so true as India that you get out of the experience what you put in. We've learned so much and yet we only spent two and a half months here so really saw very little. So India its not goodbye, but see you next time...

Posted by Kan_Kan_Can 02:29 Archived in India Tagged india mumbai maharashtra colaba leopolds Comments (0)

Palolem beach, Goa, India

days 62-70

sunny 32 °C

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Despite setting off nearly 3 hours late, our bus arrived in Goa 2 hours early and we missed our stop by 40km. After a conference that involved at least 10 members of the bus, it was decided that the best course of action was to perform an emergency stop, ceremoniously dump us off the bus there and then and point in the general direction that we needed to go.So 2 minutes after enquiring when we were going to be at our stop, we were stood at the side of the road in the middle of god knows where at 6:30 in the morning with tired eyes and confused faces. After having seen 2 cockroaches the size of your hand at a service station and having had nightmares about giant cockroaches ever since, I was actually glad to be off the bus in whatever circumstances.

The first person we saw was a rickshaw driver who was delighted to see us. Never the best source of information when it comes to using any mode of transport other than theirs, the driver solemnly told us that it was not possible to get a bus to Palolem until much later that day and we would have to be driven there, by him, for the rather ridiculous sum of 1000rps (13 quid). Suspecting that he may be deceiving us with his information about the bus timetable, we asked to be taken to to the bus station anyway. Within 3 minutes of getting there we were on our way to Palolem for 70rps between us (a quid).

The season in Goa was nearly at an end and so we managed to find a beach-hut at 'Tony's Coco-huts' for about 4 quid a night. It was basic, but had a bed, a fan, a mosquito net, a power point, a cold shower and a balcony. What more do you need? Well actually a decent roof would have been good; the first thunder and lightening storm of the season arrived on our 3rd night and the roof directly above Lou's side of the bed sprung a leak at about 4am, forcing a hut move for the rest of our stay.

The beach at Palolem stretches about 1.5km and is lined with palm trees and small bars/restaurants all the way along. As soon as the sun goes down, the sunbeds in front of the bars and restaurants are removed and replaced with candle-lit tables facing the night sea. The majority of the restaurants have a barbecue every night – you pick the fish you want from next to the barbecue, pick your marinade and a little while later its served. The first night we shared red snapper marinaded in a spicy Goan sauce, and tiger prawns (baby lobster) marinaded in the same, and purely for the anti-mosquito properties of the quinine in Gin, had a few G&T's. For the remainder of the week we ate fish or chicken at least once a day – as much as we had enjoyed being purely vegetarian in the north of India, we had started really craving some meat or fish and so the brief flirtation with vegetarianism was well and truly over.

Just over the headland south of Palolem beach is Columb; a small, quaint Hindu fishing village, and a further 20 minutes or so walk south from there is Patnem beach – a slightly smaller version of Palolem but essentially the same vibe.

We hired a motorbike for a couple of days to see a bit more of Southern Goa. 20 minutes ride up the coast is 'Agonda' beach which is apparently what Palolem was like before the lonely planet started waxing lyrical about it and the hordes flocked there, and will probably go the same way in the coming years. Its not that Palolem is built up (all the bars and restaurants lining the beach are pulled down at the end of each season, and there are no big hotel 'resorts') or over-crowded (although can get busy in the peak-season from November – March), its just its not quite the 'paradise lost' it once was. We found Agonda a bit too quiet, but imagine it would suit some.

Also accessible by bike from Palolem beach is Cargao nature reserve. On the sign on the way in it boasts of being home to leopards, tigers, panthers, bison, deer, monkeys and various birds. Local knowledge suggested that any tigers, leopards and panthers were long gone but it was worth a visit nevertheless. The entrance fee was only 5 pence each, with a further 10 pence charge for using a camera and 20 pence charge if we wanted to take the bike in with us for the 5km or so drive around. There was a pretty cool tree-house built some 50 feet in the forest canopy that was surrounded by huge orange butterflies that was accessed via a slightly rusty and rather precarious looking ladder that I assented but Lou didn't fancy. In the end we didn't see any leopards, tigers, panthers, or bison, but did see an eagle, a few monkeys, some deer, a cobra and a crocodile. It definitely beat Knowsley safari park in terms of value, and we didn't lose any windscreen wipers.

Goa's roads are actually pretty similar in standard to those back home in England, although the driving standard is chaotic to put it mildly. Its one thing to believe in karma, but quite another for a bus to try and overtake on uphill bends, narrowly avoiding sending oncoming traffic careering off the road by the width of a nostril hair. Rather than burn incense, and have a shrine to whichever Hindu God you happen to follow on the front of the bus for 'good luck', if everybody just observed some basic road safety rules then luck wouldn't come into it....

In India? Yeah right!

Posted by Kan_Kan_Can 05:49 Archived in India Comments (0)

Bangalore, Karnataka, India

days 58-61

sunny 33 °C

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The bus from Kochi to Bangalore took an arduous 10 hours, but as it wasn't a government service we had windows, air-conditioning, blankets provided, bollywood films to watch and seats that reclined as far back as you wanted. The coach stop was about 1.5km from the hotel, and as soon as the rickshaw drivers saw 2 white faces disembarking they were over quick as a shot, quoting prices starting at 10 times too much for the fare and working down. The auto-rickshaws all have meters, but getting them to actually use them is another matter entirely. Usually they say they are not working and sometimes they are working but the drivers are waiting for foreigners that they can scam and so just plain refuse to use them. We finally settled on one driver who agreed to take us for just over what the fare should have been and who had a meter, but couldn't put it on because it was after 8pm.

After sleeping in beach huts, 1 star hotels, 0 star hotels, hotels for 2 quid a night and a night under the stars (and they're some of the nicer places we've stayed) we decided we were due a bit of luxury and so went mad and booked a 30 quid a night hotel for our 3 nights in Bangalore. We got into our room and it was, I imagine, like checking into the Ritz for the first time:

“Jay the bed is so comfy”
“Lou the air-con actually works!”
“They've got HBO on the tele!”
“The shower has hot water!!”
“There's a wardrobe!”

and my favourite...

“There's a tele in the bog!!”

The purpose of our trip to Bangalore was two-fold; firstly we wanted a stop off between Kerala and Goa, and secondly a friend of mine from my previous life working in the financial services industry was going to be there for the weekend and had told us it was a decent night out. What little sightseeing there was to do we didn't bother with. There comes to a point in a trip like this where you get tired of looking at things, especially when you've seen the things previously, and they were better in the other places you saw the thing to begin with.

So Saturday night was to be our first night out since February 3rd, some 2 months. In Bangalore all the bars shut at 11pm, so the plan was to meet and my friends hotel at 5pm and go from there. When we got there there were already some people there; an English girl around my age who gave up the life of modelling to live locally with an Indian pop star, her step-son who was 16, and his uncle who my friend met in Goa partying some years ago and who apparently hasn't stopped partying since. We were all introduced, exchanged pleasantries and as is the way when you are in an environment with new people, the first beer went down in no time. The second beer went down in a similar fashion and so did a few more.

A couple of hours later we were heading out. There were 6 of us so me, Lou and the uncle took a rickshaw and the plan was to meet outside the bar we were going to in 20 minutes or so. The uncle had a detour in mind, and arranged for the rickshaw driver to go around the block a few times while he led us to a tequila bar where we had 2 tequilas each and were in and out within a minute. It was almost like being back in El Bandito in Liverpool... almost.

The tequilas did the trick and we turned the corner from being tipsy and were on the home straight to being drunk. We then met the others outside the 'Sky bar' – a swankyl terrace bar on the 17th floor of a mall, where we were to spend the rest of the evening. Lou and I had often romanticised about an Indian night out – everybody would be dressed in saris, the jewellery would be extravagant and their make-up even more so, and they would dance to bollywood music... we got into the bar and there was a familiar dance song from back home playing, everybody was dressed like westerners and everybody drunk like westerners... in fact the only difference between this bar and many in London was the fact that we were sat outside in a warm evening breeze, and rather inexplicably the blokes had to pay to get in and the girls didn't.

The drink of choice that evening for the Indians was whisky and red bull, and as we were there as their guests, who were we to argue? The green concoction was pleasantly acceptable on the palate, and they kept appearing... and appearing. At some point a bottle of Jameson's whisky appeared on the table with some bottles of sprite and so we moved on to do the more traditional, and less green, whisky and lemonade. We'd heard stories about after parties that went on to all hours, but at kicking out time we were both three quarters full of whisky, and Lou had taken to wandering off and dancing on her own so I assisted her outside and we got into a rickshaw enquiring about a takeaway. The only place open was McDonald's and so we stopped there while I went in and got 2 veggie burgers, while all of the Indians ordered filet-o-fish. I'm usually no fan of McDonald's, but with a hungry belly and a drunk head the veggie burger was actually pretty good. We got back to the hotel just after midnight, ordered 2 big bottles of water to be sent to the room, put the air-con on, watched HBO for a while and went to sleep feeling about as far from being back-packers as you could be but having thoroughly enjoyed our first night out in 2 months with some great people.

As I slowly opened my eyes the next morning at about 8ish and reached for the bottle of water, I was pleasantly surprised at the lack of abysmal hangover. Lou felt similarly chirpy and so we went upstairs to the roof-top restaurant for some buffet breakfast. We ordered some fried eggs, ate aloo paratha (a spicy, potato-filled bread) with some spicy chutneys, drank chai and laughed nonchalantly at how we'd dodged a bullet considering how much we'd had to drink, and how out of practice we were. When the food was finished the bullet was the one doing the laughing as it shot us from all angles and sent us packing back to bed with heavy heads and queasy stomachs. As checkout was mid-day we thought we had plenty of time for a quick doze... then woke up at 11:45 and had to pack and get showers in record time.

We had a few hours between checking out and boarding our overnight bus to Goa, and luckily my friend was staying an extra night so we lazed in her air-conditioned room eating crisps all afternoon while the sun blazed at nearly 40 degrees outside.

Posted by Kan_Kan_Can 05:41 Archived in India Comments (0)

Munnar, Kerala, India

days 55-57

sunny 26 °C

A small hill-station situated 5 hours drive North East of Kochi, Munnar is a travellers favourite due to its secluded location and its excellent climate – it was 37 degrees when we left Kochi and 25 when we arrived in Munnar. It is also famous for its tea-plantations – only losing out on the worldwide notoriety enjoyed by Dharjeeling and Asam, as the owner of the plantations decided rather than branding the tea picked in that area it would be used for blended, and therefore cheaper brands instead.

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There is no train station in the mountains, so we had the choice of either the government bus for 80rps each (a quid), which is always an ancient, over-crowded, sweaty affair, or a nice air-conditioned taxi with just the two of us in it for 1000rps (13 quid). We chose the government bus. As we got further up the mountain the roads became narrower, windier, steeper and it really wasn't wise to look out of the window (if indeed the bus had windows – the government busses use the natural air-conditioning option of being windowless) and the bars on the seat in front weren't to help you get up but to help you stay in your seat. Still, at a quid each you really couldn't argue with the value.

We had arrived pretty late and checked into the dated but pleasant 'Green View' guesthouse. We had intended to do a trek while there and booked it with the guesthouse to leave at 6:30 the next morning. As the sun set it actually started to get a bit chilly and for the first time in weeks I slept under the sheets, and didn't have to get a cold shower immediately before bed to enjoy a modicum of climatic comfort.

The itinerary for the trek was for us to walk a total of 8kms in the day, climbing to a peak of 2000 feet, upon which we would be served breakfast. As we wound up through the tea-plantations, the guide explained about the history of the town. Founded by Scotsmen during the British colonial period as an escape from the oppressive heat of the low-lands, the town was used solely as a holiday destination until someone discovered that the climate and soil would form good tea-growing conditions and the first tea-plantation was created. The plantations now stretch for as far as the eye can see, and employ 16,000 local people. The daily wage for the back-breaking labour of picking the tea-leaves is a paltry 180rps a day (just over 2 quid), although the company that owns the plantations – Tata, apparently provide the families with homes, subsidies, a share scheme, a pension scheme, schooling for the children and an early retirement age (58) so the although low in cash terms, the job is still a desirable one for locals.

Our next stop after Munnar was scheduled to be Mysore, about 7 hours North by government bus, however when we were half-way to Munnar I realised that I had left a birthday present I had bought for my mum back in Kochi and so we had to repeat the perilous journey back along the windy roads, except this time twice as fast downhill! Thankfully the present was still in the room where I left it, and as we had enjoyed staying in 'Oys La' (what self-respecting scousers wouldn't?) we booked in for another night. We were due in Bangalore on Friday to meet a friend of mine from work who had been sent over to work in Delhi for a couple of months but was in Bangalore for the weekend, so we decided to skip Mysore and head to Bangalore on the Thursday instead.

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Posted by Kan_Kan_Can 02:55 Archived in India Comments (0)

Kochi, Kerala, India

days 52-55

sunny 35 °C

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In another farce in a long line of farces where accommodation is concerned, the rickshaw driver dropped us off at the wrong place. Unbeknown to us or him, there are two 'Oy' homestays in Fort Cochin, and we were not at the one we had booked. As we were arriving so late/early, the guy had told us to ring his mobile when we arrived. We did this and he told us to open the gate and go and ring the bell. Following his instructions, we opened the gate, rang the bell and much to our bemusement a small Indian woman answered the day. If we were a bit bemused then she was full on baffled as we tried to explain that we had just spoken to the man who owned the accomodation (which she had presumed to be herself, and had no such recollection of speaking to us, nor of being a man) who had told us to ring the bell. We managed to get over out mutual confusion to the extent that she showed us the room she had available which she usually charged 1400rps for – more than double our budget. We explained that we had agreed a price of 600rps on the phone with the owner of the guest house, and too tired to argue, she agreed to the price on the basis that we didn't use the air-conditioning unit. The owner of the same-named place must have thought we had changed our mind at 4:30am and gone elsewhere, as he didn't phone us back.

After the busyness and general hustle of the North, Fort Cochin was relatively sedate and tranquil. There are very few beggars, pretty much no touts, no street kids, very few street dogs and even the auto-rickshaw drivers leave you alone after you've told them no. All that might sound quite nice, and in a way it is, but conversely you find yourself missing all of the things that when taken in isolation can be very irritating, but in the context of a busy city add to the charm of the place.

The primary reason for visiting was to do a back-water tour. You can stay over night on a family's house-boat but at upwards of 5000rps (70 quid), it would have left our back-packers budget decimated. We opted instead for an 8 hour day-tour at the more palatable cost of 1300 rps (17 quid), which included lunch. The tour itself was on a barge with 10 people on, and took us winding through the back-waters of Kerala at a leisurely pace. After a few hours we stopped beside a village and everybody disembarked to have a look around, take a few photos and then get back onto the boat. When we got back on the boat the 'captain' announced that it would take another hour or so to get back to the place the mini-bus was, and then we would be taken for lunch. We got back to the meeting point and boarded the mini-bus without any problems, and drove for 10 minutes or so until it was announced we had arrived. We then followed our guide 5 minutes walk through a forest until we reached our lunch destination which looked awfully familiar – it was the village that we had visited an hour earlier! India was almost surpassing itself in terms of expecting the unexpected, this was expect the downright ludicrous. Lunch was served on a banana leaf and although lovely, after hearing how spicy Keralan food was, it was disappointingly mild.

The evening after the back-water tour we had arranged to do a cooking class with the proprietor of the guest house we were staying in. On the menu was Keralan Prawn Masala, Daal (lentil curry), Aloo Gobbi (potato and cauliflower curry), chapatti (unleavened bread heated on a dry pan) and puri (the same as chapatti, except fried). We watched on and took notes for an hour as she showed us everything from how to peel prawns properly, to getting the masala (spice mix) right, to using a pressure cooker and everything in between. The best part was that after we had finished watching it all get cooked (and having a go at making a few chapattis), we got to eat it. The Keralan prawn masala was one of the nicest meals either of us had eaten in the whole of India. The seemingly simple ingredients of the masala all came together to create a perfectly balanced dish. I think the secret might have been the coconut oil used to fry the spice mix.

On our travels we'd heard about the Chinese fishing nets and fish market down at the harbour so on Sunday morning had a stroll down to have a look. There was quite a large crowd gathered to watch the fisherman in action. Their method is a simple one – a large net is cast a few feet out from the shore and every 5 minutes or so, 4 fishermen pull down on their individual ropes and this action causes the net to rise out of the water and catch unsuspecting fish. When the fisherman saw us watching them, they invited us up to have a closer look at what they were up to, and even let me have a go pulling the ropes. I managed to catch two prawns, two yellow snappers, a red snapper and a silver fish. Not bad for my first go.

Immediately upon being caught, the fish are sold to market, which happens right in front of the nets. There was an impressive array of fish on display including swordfish, tuna, red snapper, yellow snapper, silver fish, mullet, prawns, tiger prawns, green-lipped mussels, crabs and even baby shark! If you wanted to eat any of the fish you could pick the one you wanted, take it to a restaurant 50 feet away and for 100rps cover charge they would cook it for you there and then. It was morning time and we had already eaten, but we enquired how much it would be and were quoted 500rps (7 quid) for a tune that must have weighed 5lbs.

I mentioned earlier about Kerala not feeling like the India that we had become used to, mainly due to the cleanliness and order of the place. There is another reason Kerala feels different – roughly 50% of the population are Christians. Being right at the bottom of the country, the state is the first port of call for any invaders coming from the South – over the centuries many unwelcome guests have arrived, made themselves at home and spread the good word of Jesus. The famous Portuguese explorer Vasco De Gama sailed into Kerala. Add to that influence from the French, Dutch and of course the British and you have an idea of the cultural diversity of the place.

Perhaps reflecting the cultural diversity and the affluence of the state, Kerala has a very lively art and performing arts scene. Walking down the narrow streets of Fort Cochin there are many art galleries and cafes with paintings on sale, and they're not cheap by anybody's standards! The state also has its own school of expressionist acting called “kathikala”. No words are spoken during the performance – instead the story is told through facial expressions and body language. We went to see a show one night and before the play started we got a brief demonstration of the meanings of the various facial expressions and bodily movements, some of which were obvious but some were very obscure. As a result the hour long play we watched, which told the story of a devil impersonating a beautiful princess and infiltrating heaven, only to be rumbled and sent back from whence he came, was difficult to follow at times but fun nonetheless, helped in no small part by the fantastic costumed and even better make-up, which apparently takes an hour to do.

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Posted by Kan_Kan_Can 02:51 Archived in India Comments (0)

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